Leave the Dishes: Making Art While Raising Children

Reclaim Artistic Space Through Memorization
by Claudia F. Savage

Writers are often a quiet, introspective group. We mull. We ponder. We say things like, “I can’t come over; I need time to gather my energy.” When you have children, though, especially when they are young, constant need can take over quiet introspection. Nothing like two hours of “water, water, blanket, blanket, mama, mama, mama” for making your child’s nap time become a mama necessity, too.

Getting your own artistic thoughts to arise in this din is ridiculously difficult. Even if you somehow, magically, still have a regular time you write, writing is not just about sitting down at the page. You need all the steps leading up to that moment: reading books, observing, thinking about your characters, engaging the backyard dogwood starting to bloom.

So, how do you preserve mental space for your work? For me, since the birth of my daughter, it has been about memorization. Memorization helps me hold onto my own language for more than a minute. It has become the only way I can quiet the 2-year-old’s burgeoning vocabulary lodging in my head. It is easier than you think. Here is what I recommend:

Pick Some Short Pieces That Have Strong Meter
I can still remember some of the poetry I memorized as a child, partially because of its strong meter, like this familiar Yeats, from “The Wild Swans at Coole”:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky …

In your own work, it helps to start memorizing poetic pieces that have strong meter to cut through the exhaustion of parenthood. A piece that is only two or three stanzas long works well and will feel more manageable than a piece you adore that is several pages. Of course, if all you write are longer pieces (or, if you are a fiction writer) pick a small section of the piece to commit to memory. It helps if you feel really proud of the piece. This is no time for humility. Memorize work that you will like thinking about during the weeks to come. These lines, as you lie in bed, sleep-deprived and cranky, will help you remember why you make art.

Devote Time Each Week to Memorizing
I remember theater kids running around even in high school reciting their lines. I have found the easiest way to memorize is to pick a stanza and repeat it to yourself. Maybe you think it has been years since you memorized anything, but I guarantee you do it all the time. I’m sure there is a favorite recipe you put together without looking at a cookbook because you have done it dozens of times. Or, somehow you remember that new extra-long password for your computer at work. Memorizing your work requires the same skills of repetition and practice. The added joy is that you are internalizing your work into your body. Take 10 minutes at the beginning of each weekday-writing session and pick a piece you feel strongly about. Each day, read the same six lines out loud to yourself. That weekend, try to say those lines to yourself while brushing your teeth or once you get into bed. Then, the next week, pick the next stanza to work on and add to the memorized one, reciting the lines you know and reading the ones you do not. Build a house of words in your mind, week by week, foundation to roof.

Recite to Your Child
The best part of memorizing your work might be this last step. Recite the pieces you have memorized to your children. Remember that they have no way of knowing if you memorized all of it or if you recite it correctly. They only know that the tone of your voice has changed from daily corrections and affirmations to something entirely different. It is something that is not about them, but comes only from you. For a few minutes, they get to share in your language, your creation. You do not have to make it into a formal mama concert requiring your children to sit on the couch while you stand and recite in front of them. (Although, a poet friend of mine has a regular “poetry reciting night” once a month at her house where all the members of the family participate.) You can just start reciting something while your children are walking through the park with you. Recite a piece to them while you are in the car together going to the store. Recite something during bath time. Have a poem sneak up on them while they are eating a snack. Have their favorite doll “recite” it.

Hearing memorized poems has become a favorite activity for my girl. She regularly says, “Poems! Poems!” when we are doing the dishes. I often have to stop scrubbing and ask, “You want mama to recite some poems?” “Yes, mama poems!” Maybe it is the fact that my voice softens as I slowly remember the words or their rhythm, but, for now, I have a very small, very enthusiastic fan of my work. She’s two. Her name is River.


Claudia F. SavageClaudia F. Savage has been a chef for people recovering from illness, a book editor, and a teacher of poetry to young women in Appalachia, ranchers in Colorado, and urbanites in Portland. Her first book, The Limited Visibility of Bees, was named a finalist for the New Issues Press Poetry Prize. Her poetry and interview credits include CutBank, Nimrod, The Denver Quarterly, VoiceCatcher, Iron Horse, The Buddhist Poetry Review, and Bookslut. Her published chapbook is called The Last One Eaten: A Maligned Vegetable’s History. Savage is a member of the poetry/music duo, THrum, whose album is forthcoming in spring 2015. This article continues her series for VoiceCatcher, Leave the Dishes: Making Art While Raising Children.